Do the Parameters of Video Games Absolve us of Moral Responsibility in Them?

NoRussian

The January 2016 issue of Ethics and Information Technology has an article by Christopher Bartel that examines the issue of free will in video games. Bartel basically argues that even if the constraints of a videogame limit your free will in certain ways, you can still be held morally responsible for your actions in the game, if you still wanted to do them. In other words, even if the game forces you to commit a certain action, that in itself does not excuse you, morally, at least in cases where you want to do the action anyway.

It’s an interesting distinction, and one that has me wondering where it does or does not apply. Consider the very controversial scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. In this scene, which can be skipped at no penalty to the player, you join Russian nationalists who are committing an act of terrorism at an international airport. It’s a gruesome scene, as the terrorists murder innocent people, and you must pretend to go along with this in order to pass the mission. Technically, you do not have to kill any of the civilians, but you also cannot stop the attack (without failing the mission).

Bartel discusses this scene in his paper, as an example of a no-win situation, morally speaking. Many players are uncomfortable with the mission because there is no way to make a morally good choice. However, since the game’s own parameters are what prevent the player from acting morally, one could argue that the player is not really responsible. If you simply stand there and do nothing, you will pass the mission without killing any innocents. This may make you uncomfortable, psychologically, but that was the point of the mission, according to the designers (see the link above). By not engaging in the brutal behavior, you’ve taken the best option you can in the context of the game (well, the best option might be to skip this level!).

But suppose you go along with the terrorists and murder the bystanders. They aren’t real people; they are video game representations. Still, if you feel a certain joy in partaking in a murder simulator, could you be said to be engaging in immoral behavior?

Following Harry Frankfurt’s view that there is a difference between being determined to act and being willing to act, Bartel suggests that the latter may be the important part, morally speaking. In other words, there may be situations where the outcome is pre-determined. There is nothing we can do to stop it. In the deterministic sense, we are not really responsible for such events. They happen regardless of what we actually do. But such acts could happen either with our will or against our will. As an obvious example, we will all die some day. This is determined. There are even cases where we know death is coming and cannot change it. However, how we react to this inevitability does say something about us. If someone we know is dying, and we are unhappy about it, this is different, at least psychologically, from being happy about it. The results are the same either way, but how we view it does say something about our character.

What it says exactly is a complex question, and depends greatly on the context. We might be happy that a loved one dies because we are glad that they are no longer suffering, or we might be happy because they were mean to us, or because they left us money. The first reason seems virtuous to some degree, while the other two are less so, and may even verge into vices if taken far enough.

Let’s take this back to video games now. In the Modern Warfare 2 example, you cannot stop the attack. But suppose you aid the terrorists and start shooting at the civilians. What does this say about you? Well, it depends on why you are doing it. Perhaps it’s just a game to you, and you think this is just how the game works. In other words, you’ve divorced yourself from seeing it as anything more than an active movie of sorts. You aren’t taking joy in murder as such, but rather in playing the game well. Maybe you are roleplaying. Your character is a spy, trying to infiltrate this group. Maybe you are trying to think of the greater good here, in some utilitarian way. I’m not a big fan of utilitarianism, but at least this would have some sort of morality behind the motive…I guess.

But suppose you just think it’s fun to murder people. Then your actions reflect something about your character here. And it’s not good (do I have to say that???).

The issue of whether video games cause violence or create bad habits is very complicated, much more than most people realize. Studies done on this are often flawed, and there really aren’t enough of them to make conclusions in either direction. But I think how people act in simulations can say something about who they are in real life. The problem is determining what it says exactly. I have no way of knowing why you are killing civilians in games like Modern Warfare 2, or GTAV. Even if you tell me, I can’t really get into the psychology of why you are doing something.

Still, I do think that there are ways that people can play video games that do expose them as being unvirtuous to some degree or another. The fact that some video gamers might be bad people won’t surprise anyone who has actually played any games online, especially if you have voice chat on. But Bartel’s article is more about the psychology behind our actions, as it manifests in relatively deterministic worlds. It’s an interesting question and one that will definitely have me rethinking my actions and motives as I play games in the future.

Pillars of Eternity and Abuse of the Power of Nobility

poecharacter

“All power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” — Lord Acton

Like my other post on Pillars of Eternity, this will contain a specific example from the game, and is thus a spoiler. In such examples, I avoid using the main quest line. It’s possible that you will not follow this side quest, but it is rather easy to find and start. So be warned that you if you want to play the game without spoilers you should not read any further. This incident occurs in and around the village of Dyrford.

The setup for the quest is that a noble lord and his daughter were passing through the village on the way to a city. The lord says that he is hoping to find someone for his daughter to marry. Unfortunately, she has gone missing, and he suspects that she has been kidnapped. I immediately offer to help, of course, but as I ask around, I notice a few things are not adding up.

First, the noble is taking a rather circuitous route to his destination. There are easier paths, though this one is less likely to draw attention. The people in the village all dislike this lord very much and don’t really want to help me find the girl. The man’s servant doesn’t seem to know much about the girl, despite claiming that he’s been in service to the lord for years.

Further investigation finds that she seems to have run away rather than being kidnapped. However, the people that helped her seem a bit fishy too. Something is way off in this situation. The details are kind of fun, so I won’t spoil them, but eventually you learn that the girl in question is not the man’s daughter at all. She’s his niece, and (TRIGGER WARNING…seriously!), she’s pregnant with his child. Apparently, the lord’s own wife is unable to have a viable child (all of her children are hollowborn, which means they lack souls). In a last ditch effort to procreate, he forces himself on his own niece.

It’s a disgusting act, and as the player character, you are given the option of helping her enact revenge on the noble lord and thus expose the corruption of the noble class or stopping this plot. The revenge path has a high cost on everyone involved and will likely leave the young girl permanently broken (at best!). However, you are told that it will serve as a blow against the elite who abuse their power.

Of course, there are other ways you can deal with this problem. I chose to wipe the unfortunate girl’s memories and deal with her uncle myself. This seemed preferable to sacrificing her in the name of revenge. Still, I can’t help but wonder if hiding the truth from her was the right move. I sent her to a chapel, hoping that the priests there could help her start a new life. I wonder what will become of this poor woman.

These are the kind of quests that haunt you even after you complete them, and they are a big part of what makes Pillars of Eternity such an interesting game, if a bit dark at times.

Pillars of Eternity uses the Trolley Problem

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In a previous post I mentioned that I really like how Obsidian Entertainment approaches ethics in their game, Pillars of Eternity. However, they are not content to rest on an excellent virtue ethics system that tracks how your character reacts to situations. They also present you with moral dilemmas that are often quite difficult to solve, or at least make you consider which choice is the right one.

Before I give a specific example, I need to point out that this post will contain spoilers for a particular quest in the game. It is not the main quest; so you might not even find this quest. However, it is not overly difficult to find. It takes place in Defiance Bay, in Act 2. So once you have finished with that area, then you can read this post (or if you don’t mind a spoiler for one side quest).

I won’t spoil the details that get you to this point, but it turns out that an acting troupe is luring various citizens into joining them in order to essentially create a snuff fil….err, play. In other words, they literally kill these people on stage in front of an audience. The underground theater’s patron is a lord in the city. When you confront him, he points out that he cannot help himself. He has a perverse desire to see people die. He is ashamed of it, but it is just who he is. In order to keep his desires in check, he tries to select people that will not be missed, or who are not particularly good people in the first place. Moreover, he tells you, he donates a lot of money to charities in order to balance out his wrongdoing. If you destroy him, those people will no longer be helped.

It’s a classic dilemma—a version of a thought experiment called the Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem presents a situation where a trolley driver looks ahead on the tracks and sees that there are five people stuck in some way to the main track. Luckily, there is an emergency side track that goes around these five people. The driver need only push a button to switch tracks. Unfortunately, there is a single person trapped on the side track. The question is: should he push the button?

Most people say that pushing the button is at least morally permissible. Some say that he should push the button and would be wrong not to do so. The calculation in either case is basically utilitarian. Killing one person is better than killing five.

Now consider another case. A world class surgeon has five patients in need of various transplants. They will die without them. The doctor has a separate patient who is perfectly healthy and has all of the organs needed by the other five patients. Assume that the doctor is so good that the surgery is (effectively) 100% likely to succeed. Should the surgeon be allowed to sacrifice the patient in order to save the other five?

Here, most people will say that the surgeon may not do this. Some people will say that the healthy patient could volunteer to die for the other five, but many people do not find even this acceptable. In any case, our intuition is that the surgeon cannot simply take the patient’s life.

Why doesn’t utilitarianism prevail here? Many answers have been suggested. Philipa Foote says that the difference between the two cases involves killing versus letting die. Killing five people in the trolley example is worse than letting five people die in the surgeon example. Judith Thompson, on the other hand, says the difference lies in rights versus utility. In the surgeon example, we would be violating the healthy patient’s rights by killing him or her. The five other people have no right to the healthy person’s organs. Of course, the single person on the train track also has the right not to be hit by a train. Unfortunately, in the trolley example, rights get violated either way, so you fall back on utility. Violating one person’s rights is better than violating five; the lesser of two evils, so to speak. However, in the surgeon case, rights can be respected, so they should be. In Thompson’s terminology, “rights trump utility.”

Whatever solution you prefer (even if it’s some other solution!), Pillars of Eternity is offering us a similar choice. We are asked to consider whether the good that the nobleman does somehow makes up for the lives that he is taking. If we are purely utilitarian, we might argue that he does so much good for the city that the loss of a few lives is outweighed by the good done. If we are deontologists (explained a bit in the second paragraph of this post), or if we simply believe that rights are inviolable, we might argue that rights should never be ignored in this way, no matter what good may come of it.

What’s interesting is that PoE gives us this option. You get to choose which approach to ethics you (or your character) prefers to take. Of course, in real life, you might just kill the guy, take all of his stuff, and donate it to the needy. Solve both problems! But that misses the point of the thought experiment. Besides, this example takes place in a fantasy world where some people literally have the power to cure the insane impulses of other people by using mind magic. If you want to break the example, just ask Obsidian why they don’t let one your characters simply fix the nobleman so we can have the best of everything!

But that would be unrealistic.

Pillars of Eternity and Obsidian’s Wonderful Use of Virtue Ethics

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For the last several years, one of the better companies for producing both inventive and nostalgic RPGs is Obsidian Entertainment. Many of their games have taken existing properties and created sequels that took them a bit further (e.g. Knights of the Old Republic 2 and Fallout: New Vegas). Last year, however, Obsidian released a game based on an IP that it created, called Pillars of Eternity (PoE). PoE began as a Kickstarter project, which I funded because it looked incredible and I like the company. It’s a throwback in design to the Infinity Engine games (like Baldur’s Gate and Icewind Dale), but with many new features.

One of these features is the traits system, which assigns your character values to various character traits that they have exhibited through conversations that they’ve had with different people and factions in the game. It’s a wonderful system because it reflects a moral theory that I’ve mentioned before in this blog—virtue ethics. What makes PoE’s take on virtue ethics great is that it assigns numerical values to various qualities that you’ve exhibited, and then other people in the world will hear about your reputation and act accordingly.

An example might help! I am playing as a druid character (you have a party of six characters, but one is the main character, i.e. the character you are playing). She is a good person, very helpful and mostly honest. If there is a conflict between producing good and honesty, she will choose to produce good. Those do happen in the game, but for the most part, she has been able to be honest. As a result, she has an ‘honesty’ score of 3.

This means that when I am first meeting a new NPC in the world, I am sometimes given the option of using my honesty trait to convince them that I’ll do what I say. Characters in the world will react to me accordingly, saying things like “They say you are an honest person. So I think I can trust you.” This really helps with immersion, of course, but it also has in game benefits. By being trustworthy, I am told things I might not otherwise find out. Of course, there are other characters that will not like me because I am so honest. They will know that I am unlikely to lie on their behalf, and this could make them wary to give me certain tasks.

The system that incorporates all of this is not perfect. I cannot always tell which option will be seen as the benevolent one (my highest trait at 4 right now). I try to do good, but you aren’t told which option will raise benevolence or honesty or any other trait. Still, you can get pretty close. I would prefer a system where you are told which option matches which trait. That way I can be sure that I am choosing the one my character can do. This might undermine immersion though; so I understand why it isn’t present. Maybe there could be a setting to make this visible of invisible, allowing players to choose. I can, of course, go online and find this information, but I don’t want to pause my game during every conversation in order to look at walkthrus, which often have spoilers.

Overall, though, the system feels about right. There are many traits. My character is seen as slightly stoic, but mostly passionate. She’s clever. She even has a one in ‘deceptive’, probably from the times where I chose benevolence over honesty. If you play a different way, you can get traits like ‘aggressive’. I don’t know all of the traits that might be seen as more negative. I assume there is a malevolent trait to counter benevolent. Perhaps I’ll play the game again and see how that goes.

But it’s a big game; one of those epic, sprawling RPGs that you remember companies like Bioware and Black Isle making. Obsidian is a continuation of an approach to RPGs that makes you feel like you really are playing a video game version of a roleplaying campaign. The characters have distinct personalities and issues they wish to resolve. Some of them are unlikable (I’m looking at you Durance! I do not like you!). Others are simply exotic, in the sense that they represent ways of thinking that reflect the fact that they come from non-human cultures. For example, one of my favorite characters prefers eating raw meat. She’s on a journey to find the reincarnated form of a village elder that died several years earlier.

There are factions that you can find favor with or who might become enemies. There are entire new cultures to learn about; different approaches to magic, psionics, even chanting (bard-like abilities). I’m glad games like this are still being made. The inclusion of a virtue ethics approach to morality helps me see the world as a living place, where my actions and my value (or my character’s values anyway!) matter. I’d love to see other developers extend this idea further.

Let me know if there are other games that use a similar system. I’d love to hear about them.

Sports as RPGs?

baseballplayer The image above belongs to EA sports and Gamespot. I use it only as an illustration of how immersive sports games can be. I do not own the image.

Anyway, a reader of this blog messaged me to ask whether I had considered sports games as RPGs. At first, my thought was simply “Well, no, of course not! They’re sports games, not roleplaying games.” But I like many genres of games, and I’ve played plenty of sports games. What’s interesting is that more recent ones have added franchise modes and character creation, which allow you to tell a story in a way that is actually pretty much like an RPG! But can they include ethical dilemmas in them? I think so.

The premise behind these story/franchise modes is pretty simple. What if you could make an athlete of your own, and follow him or her (reminder that we need a great women’s soccer game to celebrate their World Cup victory!) through the early stages of that player’s career, working your way up into the big leagues, where you eventually reap all sorts of rewards. Many of these games have you start with lower stats, which you raise through quality play or by engaging in mini-games (like batting practice, or 7 on 7 drills, or whatever). They sometimes feature the ability to create your own home and fill it with trophies you’ve earned, or use your money to buy new cars or other symbols of prestige.

That’s where the ethics could become a bigger part of such games. Players could be forced to decide whether to remain loyal to the team they are on or move on to a more lucrative deal. Perhaps you’ve helped a small market team become a contender, and in midseason, a trade opportunity comes, complete with a new, bigger contract. Do you take the deal? Or do you remain loyal to your teammates?

Of course, deeper social issues could be explored too. For example, a shady character could approach you and ask you to shave some points at your next NBA game in order to help people win bets. I seriously doubt that any of the licensed games could do this. The leagues that support them would not allow it. But maybe some mods could add these features.

In any case, we are finding more and more games are adding RPG elements, to give them more longevity and to add greater ranges of immersion. I’m all for it, but I’d like to see these games go beyond just the material rewards of being a sports star and try to explore some of the ethical temptations that come with being a celebrity.

Transphobia MUST Stop

BaldursGateSiege

Ok, so this blog is mainly about silly things, like existentialist paladins, or pseudo-ethical dilemmas in games like Fallout 4. But today, I read an article about the reactionary pushback that Beamdog has gotten with its latest addition to the Enhanced Edition of Baldur’s Gate. Beamdog is a company that has updated several of the Infinity Engine games, like BG1 and 2, and IWD. These are classics in the RPG genre that frankly revitalized PC RPGs. By updating them a bit, Beamdog has introduced younger gamers to these fantastic games as well as allowing some of us older gamers to revisit them a bit more comfortably.

The company just released a standalone expansion of sorts, called Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear, which is set between the events of BG1 and 2. The game is receiving a flood of negative reviews, not because of the gameplay itself, but because of this one incident, which Paul Tamburro explains:

“The new expansion, which is set between the events of the first and second game, features a conversation with a transgender character in which she explains her transition. Mizhena, a cleric in the game, explains the origins behind her unusual name in a dialogue tree if the player questions her about it. “I created the name myself several years ago,” Mizhena says, adding: “My birth name proved unsuitable.” When the player asks what was wrong with her old name, she continues: “When I was born, my parents thought me a boy and raised me as such. In time, we all came to understand I was truly a woman. I created my new name from syllables of different languages. All have special meaning to me, it is the truest reflection of who I am.”
Read more at http://www.craveonline.com/entertainment/972903-gamers-flood-baldurs-gate-expansion-negative-reviews-introduces-transsexual-character#MqL2ewo3GxlduzoF.99

How does Tamburro know that the negative reviews reflect transphobia? You can read them yourself and confirm it. I’m not going to post them here. They are filled with transphobic equivalents to “I’m not racist, but…” Also look for phrases like ‘virtue signaling’ or ‘SJW’ (Social Justice Warrior), which are classic signs that you are about to read something immature and offensive.

So what we have is a bunch of people who are upset that a transgender character appears in a video game. Note that you are not forced to play as a transgender person; she is an NPC that you meet. She explains her transition and the origins of her name. That’s pretty much the extent of the encounter. Yet some people are up in arms over it.

This has to stop. The same hateful comments appeared when Dragon Age: Inquisition featured a transgender character. Representing a reality of life is not a political statement. If you don’t want to play a game that has a transgender character in it, then don’t play it. But attacking the creators of the game is wrong; trying to overwhelm the game with negative reviews because it is inclusive is wrong.

Note that this is happening in the same week that an article came out about how tabletop gaming has a “white male terrorism” problem. I’ll write about that article too, but examples like this are pretty telling. If you think gaming does not have a problem with being exclusionary toward oppressed groups, here’s a pretty good example suggesting that you are wrong.

I have no idea what it is like to grow up as a gamer in today’s world. When I grew up, many of my friends were ostracized as being nerds or geeks. It wasn’t considered a cool quirk like it is in some circles today. People were attacked because of their hobbies. I did not personally receive much of this kind of bullying, but I sure saw a lot of it. It was wrong, and I didn’t do enough to stop it at the time. Many of the comments, which were ostensibly about being a gaming nerd, were actually about things that people couldn’t control, like their appearance, or the way they walked or talked. This is the same thing! A transgender person doesn’t choose to be transgender. He/She/They may choose whether or not to transition, but very few people would willingly choose to become part of an oppressed minority. It doesn’t make sense.

I applaud Beamdog for representing a group that deserves recognition just as much as anyone else does. I have transgender friends, both online and offline. They deserve to see themselves and their stories represented in gaming. If you don’t want to hear their stories, then don’t listen. There are many NPCs, and even PCs, in video games that do not speak to me at all. However, as a white male, I’ve been catered to all my life. I have no problem finding characters that I can identify with. Transgender people deserve that same opportunity.

Beamdog’s Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear can be purchased DRM free via GOG.com or through Steam.

Synths, Droids, and P-Zombies- why do we treat machines as moral beings?

robotsAs I play through both Fallout 4 and SWTOR, I’ve been thinking about how we treat both the synths in Fallout and the droids in Star Wars. While the concepts are treated very differently in these two fictional universes, our reactions to them have some similarities. We tend to forget that they aren’t human, which leads us to treat them like moral beings in some ways.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this in terms of p-zombies, or philosophical zombies, which is a concept that was mostly developed by philosopher David Chalmers as a way of exploring certain issues in the Philosophy of Mind. The basic idea is to imagine a being that in every external way resembles a human being, but which lacks internal consciousness. In other words, the p-zombie is just a shell. In every physical way, it resembles a human being. You could converse with it, and you won’t really be able to tell the difference between the p-zombie and another other person. However, the p-zombie is not really sentient in the human sense.

The concept is usually used as a thought experiment to question assumptions in materialistic (or physicalist) models of the universe. If everything can be reduced to just physical properties, then a p-zombie should be no different than an actual human being, even though it lacks internal consciousness, since there is no such thing as an internal life independent of our physical properties. If you want to find out more, you know how to look it up!

But I want to think about synths and droids using this idea, and to ask why it is that we treat them like moral beings. In Fallout 4, there is an entire storyline that revolves around the notion of synthetic humans that could be made to look like any particular human, allowing them to infiltrate communities by substituting a particular member with a synth. This leads to a lot of paranoia, of course! What if your neighbor is really a synth? In one scene, a pair of brothers gets in an argument, with one denying that he is a synth, while the other condemns him for being a copy of his brother. I won’t spoil what happens, but the situation is telling.

As the player, you are given a chance to help these synthetic beings, and I have to admit that it feels like the right thing to do. They have artificial intelligence of some sort, and they definitely seem like humans in many ways. You can’t help but feel for them.

The same kind of thing happens in the Star Wars universe with droids. When I was a kid and saw Star Wars for the first time, I didn’t think much about the cantina scene, where the bartender says “We don’t serve their kind!” pointing at R2 and C3PO. Now, when I rewatch it, I ask “What is this racist nonsense??” Similarly, as I play through SWTOR, I don’t really see the difference between my droid companions and other humanoids that might accompany me.

But do synths and droids have any real moral status? When I feel for them, emotionally, is this really any different than when I was a kid and felt bad because some toys didn’t get played with as much as others? True story time: when my brother and I were both offered toys at the same time, I tried to always choose the one I thought was uglier or less cool, because I felt sorry for it! I have no idea if my brother noticed, or even cared. Since we were kids, he probably just switched to thinking the one I wanted must have been the cooler one. In any case, the toys didn’t really care. There was no morally superior choice here. Toys don’t feel rejected; they don’t feel anything.

And yet, every time R2 makes that sad, whiny weeooo noise in the movies, I think he’s sad. In fact, even labeling R2 a “He” is misleading. These droids don’t have genders as such. We can call them male or female, and give them appropriate voices (are astromech beeps and boops really masculine or feminine, though?), but they aren’t really gendered, are they? Perhaps they are in the performative sense of gender, but that’s a separate topic. There is no biological reason to consider them anything but objects.

Yet, here I am, both in Fallout and in SWTOR, wondering what the correct moral choice is for whatever p-zombie I am dealing with at the time. I just can’t help it!

Star Wars – The Dirty Hands Problem

kentharAs my light side character continued to move through his story line, he found himself on the capitol planet of Coruscant. This planet is a giant city; so everything you do on it takes place in one vast city (well, vast for this game; kinda small for a planet-city).

I found myself working for a the Senate to infiltrate some of the gangs that were running rampant on the planet. However, when I broke into their complex, I discovered that they had made a deal to help fund one of the very senators I was helping! Uh oh! Time to make a major ethics decision.

In this case, when I returned to the senator and confronted her with the information I found, she asked me not to disclose it, for the good of the government and the people. I moused over my dialog choices and found that the ‘Light’ choice was to force her to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences. Since I’m playing a Light character, that’s what I did, and she thanked me for showing her the li…err, the right way to be.

Here’s the problem, though. I hated this option. The senator had actually made a pretty compelling case here. She pointed out that her opponents had more money than she did; so she needed the gangs to help fund her campaign, so that she could get elected. Then, once elected, she would be able to be a force for positive change on the planet.

I get this! This is a version of what Michael Walzer, a political philosopher, calls the ‘Dirty Hands Problem’, a phrase he stole from Sartre. Walzer notes, I think rightly, that a good politician cannot help but dirty her hands a bit; it’s a messy vocation. If nobody is playing fair, then if you attempt to remain ethical and above the fray, so to speak, you will likely lose. What we want, Walzer argues, are people who are willing to do the dirty work that we do not want to do ourselves, but who are shameful enough to feel guilt at having to do so. In other words, we want someone who can’t sleep at night because she made a deal with the devil, but we still need her to make that deal, for the good of us all.

That’s basically what this senator was doing, and the game forced me (if I am to maintain my ‘light points’) to out her. That strikes me as pretty short-sighted. We might hope for a world in which politicians can tell us exactly how they feel, and what they will do. We might want a world of transparency where our politicians only do ethical things, and everything turns out right as a result. I’m not sure that’s the world we actually have though.

It’s an interesting dilemma, one that is especially fitting for me to consider the day after I voted in the Ohio primary. Do we need politicians with dirty hands? Or is it possible to clean up the system itself so that dirty hands are no longer necessary?

Star Wars (TOR)- Blinded by the Light (Part One)

kentharI recently signed back up to play Star Wars: The Old Republic. This Bioware MMORPG allows you to play as either part of the Republic or part of the Sith Empire, which basically means you are either a good person or a bad person. That’s a bit of an oversimplification. On the Republic side, you are basically supporting the good side of the conflict. However, your character can make choices that make him or her travel further down the path of the Light Side or the Dark Side.

SWTOR is much more story-oriented than most MMOs. Each class has its own story that it progresses through, including missions unique to that class. This gives Bioware a chance to make you feel like the hero, which is something most MMOs lack. The choices you make, between good and evil, as you progress through the story don’t actually make much of a difference to the story itself. However, they do change your character’s appearance and give you access to different equipment.

I have a love/hate relationship with Bioware’s approach to ethics. On the one hand, I love that they try to include it in games. The Baldur’s Gate series, for example, allows you to play any alignment, and your party makeup and choices will differ as a result of your choice to be good or evil. The problematic part is the choices themselves. In that series, the ‘evil’ acts tend to reduce to being mean and stealing a lot. There’s little room for the subtleties of playing a Lawful Evil character, bent on taking over the world. Basically, if you kill good people (or NPCs), or you get caught stealing things, you are evil. If you help people, you are good.

SWTOR takes a similar approach, but uses the Light and Dark sides of the force to represent good versus evil. Once again, I admire that they allow for this, and that it is not limited to what side you take in the galactic struggle. You can play on the Republic side, as a Jedi, and fall victim to the Dark side of the force, for example.

The problem, once again, is what is considered “Dark”.

One of my characters is a Jedi Knight. I’m playing him as a follower of the Light side, so I try to be helpful and make choices that will give me “Light Points” instead of “Dark Points”. These are helpfully labeled in the dialog choices, so you won’t make a mistake somehow. That’s a good thing, since I can’t always tell what will lead receiving points in either direction.

For example, my character was asked to help a village of Twi’leks, which he happens to be a member of anyway, though they didn’t comment on that. The village was being attacked by Flesh Raiders (that can’t be good! I hope they didn’t name themselves!). At several points, I was given the option of being exceptionally rude to the villagers. I could tell them I don’t care. I could ask for money. I could even be sarcastic at times. What was odd is that these choices may or may not lead to Dark Side points. Sometimes they would, and sometimes they would not. Also, choices that seemed pretty rude, but not outright evil, might lead to the same number of Dark Side points as choices that amount to murder. I get that game mechanics dictate some of this, but it seems odd to equate sarcasm, or even indifference to the plight of others, with killing someone in cold blood.

At other times, I would try to do the right thing, get the Light points, and then end up doing the same thing I would have on the Dark path, essentially. A good example of this came when I told one of the leaders that I would not murder the raiders for her. She said she understood but that they would likely attack me on sight, and I would have to defend myself (by killing them, of course!). That’s a good way to get my noble Jedi Knight to kill a bunch of mobs, I guess!

Another interesting choice happened when one of the village guards asked me to use some of the raider technology to get revenge on them for what they had done to villagers. Arguable, this could be seen as justice, a kind of retribution that makes sense in the case at hand. However, he constantly stressed that it would revenge, not justice, so that I would know this was the evil path. Ok, I guess I’ll have to tell him that revenge is wrong! I’m going to go out and get that tech and just destroy it rather than use it on the raiders…oh, and I might have to murd….err, self-defense them all in order to do so! But that’s Ok. Jedi Business–nothing to see here!

The Millionth Rant about D&D Alignment

alignment-chart

I won’t be the first, nor last to say this, but the Dungeons and Dragons alignment system is horribly broken. In an attempt to capture the fact that people have different motives and various virtues and vices, the makers of D&D (most likely Gygax himself) introduced the notion of alignment, which was intended to reflect your character’s basic values and moral inclinations. There were nine options: a combination of choosing whether your character was Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic, and then Good, Neutral, or Evil. By now, everyone is familiar with what the choices mean, so I won’t belabor it. The point is that your character must fit one of these categories.

The problems come when you try to actually stay true to your alignment. Some of the alignments are very restrictive, while others give characters a lot more leeway in their actions. For example, characters who are lawful good end up being practically saintly. They follow a moral code that requires them to condemn almost any act that is not completely altruistic or pure. This leads to attacking demons on sight in many cases, even if such an act is suicidal. It also means, at least in theory, that paladins should not even be in the same party as a thief. On the flipside, chaotic evil characters are downright nasty, and there’s no reason why a party of adventurers should ever allow one to accompany them. They do not follow any rules, and they are very likely to kill you and take your stuff at the first opportunity.

The very middle between these two extremes is also restrictive. The true neutral (neutral/neutral) alignment, often embodied by annoying druid characters, must seek total balance in the world between good and evil. Many players take this to mean that they must join whichever side is losing in a conflict (or outnumbered, or declining in the world, or…you get the idea!).

In practice, this leads a lot of people to select the more open-ended alignments, such as Neutral Good or Chaotic Good. These two alignments allow you to be a good person, but one largely free to interpret this however you see fit. You are willing to break the rules for the greater good, but you might follow them too. Many of my characters followed one of these two alignments, and frankly I rarely thought about alignment in those cases. I just did what I felt like doing at the time (as noted in a previous post, I tend to play good guys by default), and ignored the alignment system.

Thieves, on the other hand, might play Chaotic Neutral, which is basically the selfish alignment. Such a character will steal or kill, but not for no reason at all. They do it because they benefit from it. As a player, this alignment allows you to do bad things from time to time (morally speaking), but also allows you to cooperate with the group, for Hobbesian reasons. Thomas Hobbes writes that we are basically all egoist, but that our egoism gives us good reason for cooperating with others and forming a society. We all benefit from cooperation, and thus it’s in our own best interest to avoid murdering and stealing from people that could do the same to us.

Of course, Lawful Neutral also fits this somewhat, since this is the alignment of people who follow the rules for their own sake, and not because of the good it creates. While some people argue that this is the best choice, since it allows one to be lawful without being a zealot about it, I think it’s a completely empty alignment. This is the alignment of people who follow the rules simply because they never bother to question them. Such characters strike me as intellectually lazy, and that’s not particularly praiseworthy.

Lawful Evil and Neutral Evil characters have their own oddities. Lawful Evil represents something like the corrupt fascist, who uses law for evil means. I guess Hitler falls into this category; so if you want to play as Hitler, this is the one for you! Lucifer (the devil) would also fit, since apparently devils have to uphold their agreements, even if they twist them to evil purposes. Neutral Evil characters are out for themselves in a way similar to Chaotic Neutral, but they are a bit more bent on evil. Maybe serial killers follow this, assuming they are crafty and not just psychotic killing machines (chaotic evil). I honestly don’t think about the Evil alignments that much, because I don’t like playing that kind of character. I just don’t see why a party would ever allow any of these alignments to join them in an adventure.

However, I still haven’t really explained why I think the system is broken. The reason is simple- none of these alignments seem very realistic. People are complex moral beings. They rarely fit into easy categories like this. Hitler may have been Lawful Evil as a politician, but I bet he skipped school as a kid. And I hear that he liked puppies. Truly evil people, who do nothing but evil, are pretty rare in the real world. The concept of pure evil might make sense in a game about a fantasy world filled with monsters, but offering them as choices to player characters means that they will be caricatures at best.

Perhaps this is the general problem with D&D, and other class-based, alignment-structured systems. While some people are able to transcend the system and create truly interesting characters, the system itself does not encourage it. It encourages you to play a very two dimensional role. There is a reason why D&D has so many video games modeled after it. Part of it is popularity, of course, but part of it is that the system already feels like a tabletop version of a video game (I’m aware that D&D predates video games of the sort I’m talking about here). Sometimes, when playing D&D and similar games, I feel like I’m playing an MMORPG that requires me to pick an alignment in order to decide which magic items I’m allowed to use.

The concept of alignment is meant to encourage roleplaying, but ultimately stands in tension to good roleplaying. Still, other attempts to capture the idea of values and moral standards might fare better in this regard. So in future posts, I will explore some of these other attempts, including Palladium’s approach and even Lucas’s Light Side/Dark Side approach.